Solitude, Hermits, and All That Kind of Stuff

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Some preliminaries:

  1. If you go to You Tube and type “Chinese Hermits” in their search engine, you might be surprised to see a whole bunch of videos.  Most of them are good; a few are a bit “odd.”  The best ones are connected, one way or another, to Bill Porter (aka, Red Pine).  Many years ago when I was in a seminary studying theology, I had a Chinese friend who knew of my inclinations toward the hermit life, and one day she tells me to my astonishment that the Chinese culture has had a very prominent tradition of the hermit life for thousands of years.  There were not the organized “religious orders” like in the modern West; more like the Desert Fathers, folks who would go out into the wilderness, into the mountains for the Chinese, for a period of time, or for life, as a spiritual journey, usually Buddhist, sometimes Taoist.  
  1. Porter, who was fluent in Chinese and acquainted with this tradition, went to China about 1989, when China began opening up.  He was curious to see what, If anything, was left of the hermit tradition after Mao and the Cultural Revolution.  What he found was a still strongly surviving hermit presence in the  mountains.  The numbers were down, but the life was still being lived and growing.  Porter wrote a book about his journey to find the hermits, Road to Heaven.  It hardly got  noticed here in the U.S.; but when it got translated into Chinese, it became a “best seller” over there.  The Chinese people themselves were delighted to find out that their hermit tradition, although weak, was still alive and going.  Several of the You Tube videos follow Porter on several return visits to the mountains where he retraces his steps from decades ago, showing what has changed and what hasn’t.
  1. In the videos you see the usual presence of old hermits, but also a surprising number of younger people.  There is significant disillusionment with the materialism of modern China, with the corruption, with the doggy-dog competition for success, and with an authoritarian political life.  So the search for “something more, something different” gets an impetus.
  1. What struck me about all these Chinese hermits, young and old, was their basic humanity (the Buddhists very clear; the Taoists not so much; modern Taoism has little connection with ancient Taoism).  What you find among them are simple, down-to-earth people, serious and intense in their practice of meditation, lightsome in all else. Getting along as best as they can with no frills or  no need of approval.  My two favorite videos were these:



The first one is titled:  Assignment Asia: A Modern Hermit in China.  It features a young Chinese woman who has been living as a hermit for a few years.  She showed a graceful maturity, strength of character, and a keen common sense in her assessments.  The next one is titled:  Amongst White Clouds.  It opens on a very deep note, and I will return to this shortly.

  1. Chinese culture and history are filled with profound paradoxes and disturbing contradictions.  This was also true in religion.   No culture has produced a deeper and  more  mystical vision of our relation to the natural world, and this is evidenced in its artists, poets, and religious thinkers.  And yet you will not find a civilization that has experienced more ecological degradation than China.  A disturbing enigma!  In one of the videos,  Porter is visiting some temples in Xian, one of the major cities, and you notice the incredible air pollution.  You wonder how they can breathe!  A reality and a symbol of the problem.

The Heart of the Matter:

  1. Amongst White Clouds opens slowly…you hear a man’s voice in Chinese slowly, calmly saying something, and these words appear in the subtitles:

“Once delusion is extinguished, your wisdom naturally arises, and you don’t differentiate suffering and joy.  Actually this joy and this suffering, they are the same, the same.”

His face is intense, and he seems to be himself amazed at his “discovery.”  We can begin by saying we are out of our depth here!  But first we badly need to make a point here—one does not say such things casually over a latte….!  One does not say such things to a person suffering either physically or mentally….this is not like some kind of verbal pill that offers relief….  These words flow out of an inner illumination that is beyond all words and concepts, and it is only in such a context that you can even ponder the meaning of such a statement.  In a sense this hermit gives us a koan through which we must view the hermit life. 

The video begins with these words, and as it continues and you see a lot of the interesting (and sometimes bewildering) externals of these engaging people, that statement stays with you as a reminder of the depths this life engages….the silent, secret “heart of this life.”

  1. Switching to the West, in our society there are people who simply live alone for one reason or another.   They are often called “hermits.”  These are not the folks I will be referring to.  Nor even necessarily the people who are members of religious orders or officially recognized by  the Church which allows some to live as hermits of one kind or another.   The key word now becomes  “solitude.”  Often used  as equivalent to “hermit,” and that’s ok; but it really points us to a deep inner reality.  Solitude is an aloneness that can be external, but primarily it is an inner reality.  And the person who has written most profoundly about this is of course Thomas Merton—and the quintessential Merton teaching can be found in an essay, “Philosophy of Solitude,” found in Disputed Questions.  

This solitude, then, is not the aloneness of an individual, separate and isolate from others, standing apart and “looking down” on the mass of humanity.  (And sadly this kind of solitude is not limited to cranky, eccentric malcontents but often could be found in formal religious settings.)  Rather, this solitude is the “aloneness” of unity where there is no ”other.”  But to the “solitary one,” whoever he or she may be, whether in a religious order or someone just seeking a deeper meaning to their life, this deep solitude will at first not manifest itself; maybe only as a kind of gentle loneliness, as a bewilderment of what passes for normalcy, as an inability to take seriously the projects,  the pieties, the obsessions, the “games” of his/her neighbors.  In due time this solitude will become the illumination that is born within when “delusion is extinguished.”  There is no locus, no method, no label, no map, no “way” for any of this.  But the physical hermit, as he/she journeys into this Mystery, is an icon and a reminder of “the heart of the matter.”  In their silent, ordinary life, the hermit gradually becomes lost in a solitude he/she cannot explain.

Let us listen to Merton as he emphasizes interior solitude even and especially for the physical hermit:

“…men and women who  have not so much chosen solitude as been chosen by it.  And these have not generally found their way into the desert either through simplicity or through innocence.  Theirs is the solitude that is reached the hard way….  To say that they have been ‘found’ and chosen by solitude is a metaphor that must not be taken to mean that they have been drawn into it entirely passively.  The solitude of which I speak is not full grown and true until it has been elected by a deep interior decision.  Solitude may choose and select a person for herself, but this person is not hers until he has accepted.  On the other hand no amount of deciding will do any good, if one has not first been invited to make that decision.  The door to solitude opens only from the inside.  This is true of both solitudes, the exterior and the interior.  No matter how alone one may be , if he has not been invited to interior solitude and accepted the invitation with full consciousness of what he is doing, he cannot be what I call a monachos, or solitary.  But one who has made this choice and kept to it is always alone, no matter how many people there may be around him. Not that he is withdrawn from them, or that he is not one of them.  His solitude is not of that order at all.  It does not set him apart from them in contrast and self-affirmation.  It affirms nothing.  It is at the same time empty and universal.  He is one, not by virtue of separation, but by virtue of inner spiritual unity.  And this inner unity is at the same time the inner unity of all.  Needless to say, such unity is secret and unknown.  Even those who enter it, know it only, so to speak, by ‘unknowing.’

“It should therefore be clear that one who seeks to enter into this kind of solitude by affirming himself and separating himself from others, and intensifying his awareness of his own individual being, is only traveling further and further away from it.  But the one who has been found by solitude, and invited to enter it, and has entered freely, falls into the desert the way a ripe fruit falls out of a tree.  It does not matter what kind of a desert it may be:  in the midst of men or far from them.  It is the one vast desert of emptiness which belongs to no one and to everyone.  It is the place of silence where one word is spoken by God.  And in that word are spoken both God Himself and all things.

“Often the lonely and empty have found their way into this pure silence only after many false starts.  They have taken many wrong roads, even roads that were totally alien to their character and vocation.  They have repeatedly contradicted themselves and their inmost truth.  Their very nature seems itself to be a contradiction.  They have perhaps few ‘clear signs’ of any vocation.  But they end up nevertheless alone.  Their way is to have no way.  Their destiny is poverty, emptiness, anonymity.”

Some Additional Notes:

  1. Important to remember that “solitude” and the “hermit” do have different interpretations, different valuations, different meanings as we look at various historical periods and various cultures.  What Merton is saying is meant for the modern West and this highly complex technological culture and a climate of mass humanity.  You would have to greatly modify what he says if you were talking about, for example, a pre-modern tribal culture.  Lets explore this a bit.

What is the root meaning of the word “hermit”?   Eventually its roots can be traced back to the ancient Greek word “eremos,”  meaning a place that is uninhabited,  empty, desolate, a wilderness, a desert, etc.  Thus a hermit is a “person of the wilderness.”  Also, if you dig deeper,  the Indo-European root of the Greek eremos is “erem,” which indicates “to rest, be quiet”—interesting that the Sanskrit word, “ramate,” comes from the same root and means “to rest,” also the Lithuanian “rimti,” to be quiet.

Now all this is very interesting…the eremos, the place of the hermit is set in contradistinction to the village, the town, the city, where the work of civilization goes on.  Out there, “outside civilization,” or “the human dwelling place,” there is great ambiguity.  In some places the “bad person,” the unwanted one, is expelled from the human environment; he/she becomes the “outsider.”  In some situations, the person goes out voluntarily, perhaps temporarily, leaves the accepted human environment to discover the point of their life and their real identity.  Remember that for premodern cultures who you are is pretty much determined by your membership in the group.  So when a young Native American would go out “into the wilderness” on a  “vision quest” that would tell them who they really are and the point of  their life, as an initiation into adulthood in their tribe, this already shows a need for “something more” that transcends the group.  He/she temporarily becomes an “outsider,” a person of the wilderness, to receive something that the collective cannot give  him.  Of course the young person  now returns to take their place in their society, but now with an enhanced sense of their identity that in turn enriches the community.  Another kind of situation occurs In ancient China:  the Buddhist /poet who usually holds a high place in the Confucian social order is either expelled or flees from the “red dust” of the city(referred to  here in previous postings).  Buddhism can be practiced in the city, but when the person goes out  into  the landscape of “mountains and rivers,” becomes an “outsider” of sorts, then something deeper unfolds.

Now lets switch scenes.  In the Gospels we find Jesus going out to the “eremos” to pray, and then there is the “Temptation in the Wilderness” episode.  Really the essence of it is a matter of Jesus’s identity, who he is.  In a very real sense Jesus “extinguishes delusion” in this wilderness and affirms that his real identity is an absolute gift of  his absolute unity with the Absolute Mystery whom he now can call “Abba, Father.”  Note also how Jesus is now always an “outsider,” not a man of the city, certainly not what we would call today a member of  the establishment.  In one Christmas reflection, Merton mentions that in the Nativity accounts, it is the shepherds, the folks outside the city, who are first to receive the “Good News.”  They are the remnant of the true Israel who with Moses had to go out to the “eremos” to discover their true identity, the meaning of their very existence.  Later on in Christianity, the desert monks follow this pattern, and one will totally misunderstand their teachings unless one sees this pattern and this dynamic of “extinguishing delusion.”  

As an example of how badly the whole thing can be misread and misinterpreted, consider the example of the early American colonists, the Puritans.  For them, the wilderness was the locale of the Devil, the Evil One, not a place for one of “the Elect.”  In fact, those who were “native” to the wilderness or were “influenced” by it partook of this evil and needed to be “extinguished.”  This explains both the witchcraft fears and a hidden attitude  that manifested in the continuing saga of cruel injustice toward Native Americans, whose very culture was practically extinguished.  (Please do not fall for the “Thanksgiving myth!)

  1. Looking at a book like The Book of Hermits, whose author is also the person behind the interesting website, “Hermitary,” can be confusing.  On the one hand, it is a comprehensive survey cutting across all  ages and all cultures to give brief accounts of people one way or another connected with solitude.  But the problem is  that the book makes no effort to distinguish between the “real” and the “ersatz.”  I think that approach is problematical.  Just living alone or talking about solitude does  not make one a hermit or living solitude, unless one is using such terms only in a sociological sense.  Then one has a potpourri of examples, but it all can be very misleading.  The person who recently attacked Paul Pelosi was described by his neighbors as a “loner,” he lived alone.  Enough said.
  1. Reading some parts of Merton, you could get the  idea that living in solitude is a breeze, only fulfilling, deeply satisfying, always relieving one of what was bothering one, the problems just falling away, etc., etc.  Here’s a couple of quotes from his personal journals that say “Not exactly!”

“I see more and more that solitude is not something to play with.  It is deadly serious, and much as I have wanted, I have not been serious enough about it.  It is not enough just to ‘like solitude’ or love it even.  Even if you like it, solitude can wreck you, I believe, if you desire it only for your own sake….  Solitude is a stern mother who brooks no nonsense.  And the question arises—am I so full of nonsense that she will cast me out?  I pray that she will not, and I suppose that is going to take much prayer.” 

“Unfortunately even in solitude, though I try not to and sometimes claim not to, I still depend too much emotionally on the idea of being accepted and approved and of having a place in society.  But obviously there is no such thing as absolute solitude.  Even my solitude is my place in society.”

“The solitary life, now that I really confront it, is awesome, wonderful, and I see I have no strength of my own for it….  It seems to me that solitude rips off all the masks and all the disguises.  Everything but straight affirmation or silence is mocked and judged by the silence of the forest.”

And so we end on the note that began this reflection:  the extinction of delusion and the wisdom that then naturally arises.